The subjection of Arab women will be inevitable if Islamist political parties seize power in the countries of change, where coups or uprisings took place this year. The condition of women in Iran in the wake of Khomeini’s revolution in 1979 bears living testimony to the fate of Arab women, if they make similar mistakes and fail to rebel early on and in a comprehensive fashion. For one thing, Arab women today would represent an extraordinary instrument of change, if they were to organize themselves with the aim of causing political, economic and social change, so as to form a clear response to the attempts of Islamists to hijack the idea of the secular state. Resisting subjection may force women to resort to violence, and this would require courage, boldness and initiative.
Yet civil disobedience would also require these qualities. And so would “thinking outside the box”, through new means and approaches, some of which entailing confrontation, while others requiring an innovative and creative strategy. While traditional women’s associations have played and continue to play a necessary role, most of them have dissociated themselves from politics, considering the latter to be “men’s work”.Women have played significant roles within political organizations, liberationist or Islamist, yet they have most of the time been excluded as soon as the revolutionaries or the Islamists came to power.
The condition of women in countries that claim to be enlightened, such as Lebanon, is also shameful given the absence of women from political decision-making institutions, as the men of power had not “found” any women qualified enough to fill even a single ministerial position under the current Prime Minister, while there were only two female ministers under the previous one. In fact, the country of freedom and democracy, as it boasts, has failed to adopt a decision to outlaw violence against women in compliance with the desires of religious institutions. The women of Egypt, or most of them, are digging their own graves as long as their burkas are blinding them to the fate of their fundamental rights – women’s rights from the perspective of human rights at the very least.
Here, the women of Lebanon, a country not reached by the Arab Spring - which has become an autumn and a possible prelude to a winter storm-, have one thing in common with the women of Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, where the fast train of change has arrived, as well as with the women of the Syrian opposition, who have played striking political roles and whose fate remains unknown under the alternative forces that would come to power. What they have in common is the necessity for them all to form feminist political parties – political parties, not unions or associations. They are in need of political parties with clear programs and goals, and a clear focus on the roles played by women in decision-making. They need parties that are bold and courageous in calling themselves feminist, then run in elections and demand a 30 percent quota of posts for women, as adopted by the United Nations 35 years ago. These parties would organize protests, demonstrations and local and international workshops to benefit from the experiences of women around the world. In fact, the first of such workshops should be held in collaboration with the women of Iran.
And more still, such workshops should examine ways to make use of the Arab women’s money and their abilities (independently as holders of capital), yet within a strategy of influence capable of transforming the standards of an investment in which women would be pioneers and decision-makers, and which would have a massive impact on the country’s economy. This way it will be possible to redefine the role of women in the Arab region and also to reshape their relations with the new generation of both young men and women. And if the young generation, which took part in the revolutions of change and in the overthrow of the regimes, has truly reached political maturity, it should take the initiative now – before the Islamists finish hijacking their revolution – to raise Arab women as a slogan, an instrument and a feature for the democratic road to reform and freedom.
It may be said that a crisis and a confrontation could arise between the women of modernity and the women of tradition – especially religious tradition – in view of their different aspirations. Well then, so be it. Just as there is acceptance of the struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists for power, or between Leftists and Islamists, let the difference between the women of modernity and the women of tradition be accepted and be democratic.
The Libyan women activists are characterized by a great deal of courage, as they enter into a fateful battle against the Islamist revolutionaries, and even against the leaders in power who have rushed to degrade Libyan women by reinstating Libyan men’s “right” to marry four women. Libya’s women may well fall victim to the alliance between the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) and the revolutionaries to overthrow the regime, if the sponsors of this alliance do not go ahead and exercise their influence – which they do when they want to – instead of merely speaking empty words about women’s rights. Libyan women have taken part in getting rid of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime – and some of them have been active for 40 years – but they are now alone in a fateful battle against the men of the revolution, who are determined to monopolize power, exclude women and impose their own narrow-minded version of Sharia rule.
The United Nations has a role it must now boldly play through its Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who spoke boldly against Gaddafi, and must now speak with the same boldness for the rights of Libyan women, from the perspective of human rights as well as that of political participation. In Afghanistan for example, where the United Nations played a role in shaping the new political regime after the fall of the Taliban, then-UN Envoy Ambassador Al-Akhdar Al-Ibrahimi made sure to include the participation of women in decision-making and a clear quota for them according to the constitution, giving women 25 percent of seats in parliament. The United Nations failed to do the same in Iraq – although it would have been able to if it had tried. Before it today is the opportunity of a Security Council term for the Secretariat, as well as that of the presence of an entire UN entity dedicated to women, called UN Women and headed by the former President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet. This entity must prove itself courageous and bold by supporting and providing all assistance to Arab women. This is a fateful phase for them, and that is the mission of the new entity.
A workshop for Arab women must adopt a new political discourse, based on women leading, not following, or demanding to be granted a right here or to have a restriction removed there. The women of Iran have hesitated, they have been patient, they have waited and they have dreamed. And when they awoke to their bitter reality, it was too late. Even the execution of some of them went by without any international notice. Their situation today is tragic, and they are warning Arab women, as if to say: beware of committing the same mistakes. If you do not rise up now, it will be too late.
The Arab youths, who are waging the battle for change in their respective countries, have not yet risen to recognizing the right of young women to freedom, liberalism and the right to express themselves. Most of them fell between chivalry and tradition, as they watched the Islamists in Tahrir Square in Egypt expelling young women by “pushing” them and pulling their hair, to punish them for violating tradition. Some of them have overlooked harassment, and even rape. As long as they keep this mentality, they will not rise to the level of being able to cause the required radical change in Arab societies, not just because this is a fundamental part of freedom and liberalism, but also because it will not be possible to develop Arab societies without women.
If young Arabs stay in the Tahrir-style Squares of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and Syria in such a state of want, their battle for power against the Islamists will be a losing one. They will surely fail without the participation of young Arab women, who have truly begun work that is organized, bold and qualitatively new. They are active in Tunisia, Syria, Morocco, Libya and Egypt as well.
The burden of the fate of Yemeni women, meanwhile, falls on the shoulders of Tawakel Karman, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, amid the West’s zeal to accept the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Tawakel is affiliated – considering them to represent moderate Islam, as per their own definition. It is not clear whether Tawakel Karman intends to make use of the standing given to her by such a prize in defending the rights and the role of Arab women in a secular state that separates religion and state. Tawakel Karman has the right to take on the role of an activist for the overthrow of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, but she does not have the right to take on that of a supporter of Arab women, as long as she does not clarify her position within the context of the Muslim Brotherhood being in power.
It is time to clarify one’s identity, particularly by the women of the Muslim Brotherhood. We know that Salafist women have neither a say nor a role, but only exclusion and submission, as admitted and clearly declared by the Salafists themselves. We know that the worst thing that could happen to Arab women would be for the Salafists to come to power. They have made this unequivocally clear. What is unclear is the women’s program within Muslim Brotherhood organizations, which pay lip service to modernity as a tactic, so as to reach power then monopolize it.
Turkey, perhaps in partnership with Qatar, has promoted so-called moderate Islam to circumvent extremism. Yet it is today required to take clear stances towards the roles and rights of Arab women. We know that the wives of all high-ranking officials in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, including the President and the Foreign Minister, wear the hijab as a political statement, and not just as a religious choice. Turkey has the ability to stop the descent, because secularism in it is strong, and because its geography prevents it from such a descent. Things are not so in the Arab region. Turkey is required to speak publicly of the situation of Arab women, especially as it is a partner in the drive to bring the Islamists to power.
Most importantly, Arab women must begin to work for local change while coordinating or at least communicating with the feminist work being done in other Arab countries. The challenges are many, benefiting from the lessons of others is necessary, and adopting a new methodology based on political discourse and on establishing political parties has become urgent. The time for serious work is now, because the Arab Awakening will end in the Slumber of the Dark Ages if Arab women fail to take the initiative and to lead the way forward.
(The writer is a columnist at Dar Al Hayat, where this article was first published on Dec 9, 2011.)